half dome top

Half Dome Training Tips

By Heather

Plenty of people have done the Half Dome hike with zero training, and it’s certainly possible to do. But getting physically prepared for the hike will make everything much easier on yourself and better your chances of getting to the top.

The mountains are at least an hour away from where we live, so I can’t get out there more than once every few weeks. As a result, most of my training took place at the gym. Caveat: I’m not a personal trainer or any kind of expert. This is all based solely on my own experience and your mileage may vary.

Gym training

There is no single thing you can do that will prepare you for this hike. You will need to be well rounded.

This hike is going to demand everything at one point or another:

  • Endurance. If you kick off the hike from the Curry Village parking lot, it’s 20.74 miles from start to finish.
  • Upper-body strength. This primarily goes for the cables, since the middle portion is really going to demand your arms more than your legs.
  • Lower-body strength. The elevation gain of the hike coupled with the many, many stairs is going to call for every last bit of strength in your legs.
  • Breath control. Huffing and puffing in thin air is a terrible idea. As you gain elevation, the oxygen in the air declines. As a result, it’s important to control your breathing to maximize your oxygen intake. It also means controlling your pace so that you’re making progress but not breathing hard.

Breath control

Learning to control your breath while exerting yourself is a matter of breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth. It’s awkward at first, but once you get it, you’ll be able to go harder and longer and won’t be gasping for air at high altitude (and sea level, for that matter).

Learning to exercise in high altitude is just a matter of practicing it at the highest elevation available to you. Altitude affects everyone differently; see how it affects you if you can. Practice keeping a steady pace and controlling your breathing at a higher elevation. I have found that it really does get easier. Just walking to the bathroom at our favorite campground (which is 7,000 feet elevation) used to leave me gasping for air, but now it’s no problem.

Cardio training

The average time it takes to do the Half Dome hike is around 10 to 12 hours. You need the endurance to go that long, and maybe more.

I’ve always had good exercise instructors and found their advice to be really effective. I follow it to this day:

  • Alternate high-intensity workouts (75 percent or more of your maximum heart rate) with low-intensity workouts. Calculate your maximum heart rate ›
  • On a low-intensity day, if you need to open your mouth to breathe, you’re working too hard. Work to keep your heart rate steady in the fat burning zone.

I followed a similar workout plan, alternating high and low intensity four times a week for 50 to 60 minutes.

subdome half dome

Strength training

If you only had time to do one exercise for each part of your body, I would say:

  • Row machine for your arms and back
  • Squats with weight for your legs and glutes
  • Planks for your abs/core

If you have time for more than that, go for it. It will only benefit you.

Up the weight once a week or so, and do three sets of 15 reps every time with a 15-30 second break in between each set.

You not only need to build muscle strength, you need to build muscle endurance. The only way to do both is by adding weight and doing plenty of reps. Your muscles should feel really tired at the end of each set.

Training outdoors

If you live near awesome hiking, I’m jealous.

Half Dome is around 8,839 feet in elevation, high enough that some people could get altitude sickness. If you don’t have experience in high altitude, I recommend hiking to at least 8,800 feet or higher and see how you do.

We did a few training hikes that had good elevation gain (around 4,000 to 5,000) to work our legs and get us used to working hard at elevation. The more hiking you do like this, the better you’ll get and the more successful you’ll be.

The length of the hike is the least important factor, in my opinion. You definitely want to make your training hikes lengthy, but elevation gain and altitude training are more important. This hike was five miles longer than any hike I’ve done and the length was the least difficult thing about it.

Practice hikes should also give you a general sense of how much fuel you usually require on a strenuous trek, but always bring more food and water than you think you’ll need.